Antonin Scalia was one-of-a-kind

February 18, 2016

Antonin ScaliaJustice Scalia’s death this past weekend continues to dominate headlines, with discussions focused both on the political battle and the conspiracy theories resulting therefrom.  Of course, these developments have all but drowned out those reflections on the late justice’s life and legacy, which had held onto the national spotlight all too briefly in the moments following Scalia’s death.

And this turn of events adds even more tragedy to an already tragic occurrence.  Regardless of whether you agreed with his views, it’s difficult to dispute that Antonin Scalia was truly one-of-a-kind.  While it would be impossible to capture all of the traits that made Scalia so unique in one short blog post, I am going to highlight a few of these aspects.

He wasn’t afraid to break the conservative mold

Scalia was well-known for his ardent conservative beliefs – especially those pertaining to divisive social issues such as same-sex marriage, abortion, immigration, and gun control.  But those not more intimately familiar with Justice Scalia’s judicial history and philosophical slant may not realize that he broke ranks with his conservative colleagues – and did so relatively often.

Again, given Scalia’s long tenure on the Court, there isn’t room to exhaustively discuss all of the cases that found Scalia breaking conservative ranks, but here are a few more recent highlights:

Kyllo v. United States (2001) – Writing for the majority, Scalia, joined by Justice Thomas and three of the Court’s liberals, ruled that police using a thermal imaging device on a private residence constituted a search within the scope of the Fourth Amendment, and thus required a warrant.

National Cable & Telecommunications Association v. Brand X Internet Services (2005) – Remember the big net neutrality fight over the past several years, and how it culminated in the FCC reclassifying fixed and mobile broadband providers as “telecommunication services” almost a year ago?  Turns out the Supreme Court ruled on the issue of whether the FCC had properly classified broadband providers back in 2002 (the event that started the string of net neutrality fights in the first place).  In National Cable, the Court ruled 6-3 that the FCC had acted within its authority.  Scalia dissented, however, joined by Justices Souter and Ginsburg.  In his typically fiery dissent, Scalia lambasted the FCC’s “self-congratulatory paean to its deregulatory largesse” along with its “implausible reading of the statute” in U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia speaks at a Reuters Newsmaker event in New Yorkquestion.

Florida v. Jardines (2013) –  Scalia, once again writing for the majority (joined by the four liberal justices), ruled that the act of the police bringing a drug-sniffing dog to a private residence’s porch to search for drugs constituted a Fourth Amendment search and thus required a warrant.

Missouri v. McNeely (2013) – Scalia joined the majority opinion written by Justice Sotomayor in ruling that an involuntary blood draw is a Fourth Amendment search requiring a warrant.

Maryland v. King (2013) – In yet another Fourth Amendment case from 2013, Scalia wrote the dissent, joined by Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor, Kagan.   He further took the rare step of reading his full dissent from the bench during the announcement of the opinion, signaling his strong disagreement with the majority, which had upheld a Maryland state law that requires all arrestees in valid police custody for a serious offense to provide a DNA sample.

Scalia’s position in these cases illustrates that he wasn’t afraid to go against the grain of his conservative peers – and that he stuck by his beliefs regardless of who that put him at odds with.

He didn’t let politics get in the way of friendships

Though widely known not only for his conservative views but also for his effusive and sometimes biting expression thereof, with his forceful dissents often going so far as to actually insult members of the Court who joined in the majority opinion.

Despite his bluntness, Scalia was able to form a close and lasting friendship with one of his fellow justices – one whose views were virtually on the opposite side of the spectrum: Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Indeed, much as been written about their unlikely friendship – as well as their shared love of opera.  In fact, there’s even a recent opera based on their relationship: Scalia/Ginsburg.

But their similarities are miniscule in comparison to their differences.  Aside from their sharply diverging judicial philosophies, the two had very different demeanors, with Ginsburg’s soft-spoken character contrasting greatly with Scalia’s brash, larger-than-life persona.  But they were very close friends in spite of these differences – specifically “best buddies,” as recently described by Ginsburg reflecting on Scalia’s death.

He had a great sense of humor

Finally, Antonin Scalia was famous for his affinity for humor.  Of all of the current justices, no one told more jokes that got more laughs during oral arguments than Scalia.  And his opinions were virtually always expected to contain at least a few zingers (and more than a few if he was writing a dissent).

But this sense of humor, though often directed at others when employed in his role as a judge or justice, also allowed him to enjoy jokes at his expense.

Scalia at WHCA DinnerPerhaps no public event better illustrates this aspect than the late justice’s reaction to Stephen Colbert’s performance at the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, during which the comedian poked fun at Scalia for some then-recent obscene gestures the jurist had made to some photographers.

Although Colbert explains it all in more detail on a recent episode of The Late Show, Scalia wasn’t the only one in the room to be the brunt of Colbert’s jokes that night, but no one took the jokes nearly as well as Scalia did.  According to Colbert, Scalia’s was the only laugh to be heard from the front of the room (where most of the high-ranking politicians and the like were seated).  Further, after Colbert was finished with his performance, “no one in the room would even make eye contact” with him because they were so upset by some of his jokes.  No one, except for Justice Scalia, who lauded Colbert’s jokes – particularly those directed at Scalia himself.

Such an affable sense of humor is rare among those in high positions of power, and it reflects a personality that didn’t take himself too seriously, in spite of how much influence he wielded.

In all,  We can truly say that the Court is unlikely to see someone else like him anytime soon – if ever again.